Joel Haddock and Chris Klimas regularly have, what they call, a "date night." No dinner. No movie. Nothing like that. To them, "date night" is working on a personal project — Twofold Secret, an independent gaming studio the two founded in 2010.
It consists of huddling at the kitchen table at one of their homes, hammering out issues and planning a week-by-week game plan for whatever project they're working on.
The co-founders met as undergraduates at Washington College in Chestertown when the two were neighbors in their college dorm, and discovered they both had an interest in games.
"The idea of creating a game was something the two of us had been bouncing back and forth since our college days. Unfortunately, it was a lot of talk and not a lot of accomplishment," said Haddock, 35.
Now the work of Twofold Secret is displayed in "Where We Are" an exhibit at Current Space, on view through March 30. The exhibit, presented by ICA Baltimore, showcases Twofold's five games and highlights the expansion of game development. Visitors can play any of the five video games via projector or flat screen. "Where We Remain" will be on display, with an in-game installation to record how many people play the game.
And while Twofold Secret has grown over the past four years, it is just one of the many companies in the ever-growing local industry. A 2010 study publicized by the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore found that the Baltimore-Bethesda region ranks among the country's biggest metropolitan areas for gaming and simulation employment. In a series of interviews, conducted via email, leaders in Baltimore's gaming community and independent developers agreed that independent game studios are driving growth in the scene.
"The local industry probably employs about 1,000 people. It is one of the top areas in the country, particularly on the East Coast," said Tim Train, 44, the chief operating officer at Baltimore-based video game studio SecretNewCo. "I think the combination of low cost of living and good schools help make the area very attractive, particularly for experienced talent with East Coast roots."
These days, Klimas and Haddock handle Twofold Secret from their homes in Owings Mills and Timonium, respectively, on the side. Both have full-time jobs; Haddock works as a project manager for investment research company Stansberry & Associates, and Klimas, 34, is a web developer for University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. When the two aren't working together in person, they're collaborating via the Internet. All expenses, typically for equipment at shows or software, come straight out of pocket. They recently added their first intern.
Though there are many variations of what one thinks an independent gaming studio is, the concept is fairly simple: a studio with a small staff (15 to 30 at the most), with the ability to incorporate concepts and work on self-made deadlines without reporting to an outside boss. The marketing, the public relations and any potential sponsorship for the game release? The company's own responsibility, all on a self-decided budget.
Baltimore has long been a haven for video gaming studios, dating to the 1960s when gaming company Avalon Hill came to town. In the 1980s, Microprose, a video game publisher and designer, started up in Baltimore. It sparked a movement. Baltimore was seen as an appealing city for many video gaming studios hoping to start a location on the East Coast. As the video gaming community grew, larger studios and independent studios worked side-by-side.
But the local industry has gone through shake-ups in the past few years, with many large studios leaving the area, making way for new start-ups and independents.
Big Huge Games, a Timonium-based video game development studio (Train was a co-founder), was shut down by parent company 38 Studios in May 2012, firing a staff of almost 100 people. Soon after, North Carolina-based Epic Games created Impossible Studios in Hunt Valley, snatching up many Big Huge Games employees looking for work. Epic Games quickly died, however, closing up shop nine months later in February 2013.
Zynga, creator of "Farmville" and "Words With Friends," downsized the company the same month as Impossible Studio's shutdown, closing its Zynga East studio in Timonium. The studio tried to accommodate staff, giving a job to any Baltimore employee willing to relocate to another city, though all but one location was away from the East Coast.
Despite many developers losing their jobs, the shift made way for new start-ups hoping to break ground in Baltimore.
"This is mirroring trends in the broader industry. It's a brutal time, but the creative destruction is resulting in a lot of new opportunities," said Train.
These new opportunities have even led to companies teaming up to collaborate on projects. Just last fall, Mohawk Games and Oxide Games planted ground in Baltimore, with financial backing from Michigan-based Stardock's Strategic Investment Fund. These two independent studios have been working together, with Mohawk Games looking to have its first game use Oxide's Nitrous Engine, a graphics design system for PC and console strategy.
But for Twofold Secret, the biggest appeal of independent gaming studios is freedom. "We are not bound by release schedules, sales targets or shareholder demands. We pretty much have free rein to create what we want, when we want," said Haddock. "Now, the flip side of that is that a lack of that kind of structure means you have to force it upon yourself to actually get things done, but that's something we're willing to do."
Twofold's latest release, "Camp Keepalive," was released in August 2013, with the mission of the game to save the campers from a mob of monsters, using the assistance from counselors who possess special powers. Each player makes his or her own decisions on how to move throughout the game. This element is a theme in all of their games, allowing the players to create their own storyline. Twofold's first three games were created on Flash, and the most recent, "Sought" and "Camp Keepalive," were produced on downloadable PC and Mac platforms. Each game has a unique storyline, with some based on stories Haddock and Klimas made up, and others based off other games or movies. "Where We Remain" was created in the style of "The Legend of Zelda," whereas another game, "Sanctuary 17" was inspired by television show "The Night Stalker."
"The people in the local industry here are friendly and supportive, and everyone is always ready and willing to try something new. For an indie studio, Baltimore has a lot to offer that other cities just can't," said Haddock.